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Christopher Columbus’ words on discovering magnificent Cuba says it all: “This is the most beautiful land human eyes ever saw”. From the bustling and alluring capital of Havana to the tobacco fields and lush countryside of Viñales, and the country’s lesser-known beaches, discover our recommendations below for the best places to go on your Cuban travels.
It might go without saying, but we’re going to say it anyway – if there’s one place you simply have to visit in Cuba, then Havana is it. The iconic and legendary reputation of Cuba’s capital is undeniably what draws people to this incredible Caribbean island, time and time again. Here, Cuba’s history is evident everywhere, from the architecture to the street art and the classic cars. Nothing beats taking a pit stop in one of the city’s many rum bars and cafes to soak up the unique atmosphere and watch Cuban life in action. The same can be said for a leisurely walk along the Malecón – Havana’s 8km beachfront boulevard, where the waves of the harbour greet the city. In particular, the Malecón comes alive at night and you can often watch local musicians work their magic in front of captivated audiences. Also worthy of a visit, especially for those with an interest in the country’s history and architecture, is Havana’s cathedral – Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana. Meanwhile, admirers of art should explore Cuba’s art culture at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, which exhibits an impressive collection of Spanish and other international art, dating back from 500BC to the present day.
2. Playa Ancon & La Boca beaches
Tourists have been flocking to famous resorts such as Varadero and Cayo Santa Maria on Cuba’s northern coast for years, but the southern coast is also home to some lesser-known gems. Among them is Playa Ancon, which is generally considered the finest shoreline on the south coast. The white sands, pristine waters and natural surroundings make this beach picture perfect. Located only seven miles from the city centre of Trinidad, its accessibility from the city is also a major draw (15 minutes by car or 40 minutes by bicycle), as are the offshore coral reefs which are ideal for snorkelling or diving. Not only that, this beach is long and large and it’s rare that you’ll have to battle hordes of tourists seeking the perfect sunbathing spot.
Tourists are increasingly becoming wise to Play Ancon though, so if you want to escape the buzz we suggest you head to La Boca – a small fishing village sandwiched in between Playa Ancon and Trinidad. It boasts a quaint, pebbled beach which is shaded by flowering acacias (perfect for retreating from the harsh summer sun). This will suit those who prefer a more laid back and tranquil seaside vibe. December to May is generally the best time to enjoy a beach break on the south coast of Cuba, with dry, sunny days and plenty of blue skies being the norm.
Known as the city of the 29 rivers, Baracoa is located at the tip of eastern Cuba and was originally the capital city. According to local legend, those who bathe in the Miel River (one of many that intersect in the area) will always return to Baracoa. Regardless of whether you do that or not, there are endless reasons this beautiful city will leave a lasting impression…food being one of them. Cuba is rarely celebrated for its cuisine, but Baracoa is somewhat of a gourmet gem. As the capital of cocoa, you’ll discover the best chocolate in Cuba here, plus plenty of coconut and banana based dishes. A visit to Baracoa isn’t complete without trying prawns or octopus in coconut sauce! Also make sure you try Cucurucho – a local delicacy which consists of coconut, sugar and other ingredients including orange, guava and pineapple, all wrapped in a cone-shaped palm leaf. Baracoa is a place you’ll find food combinations almost impossible to find in other regions: beans with coconut milk, bacan (a type of tamale) and Teti (small fish) featuring heavily in local cooking.
Once you’ve sampled the delectable local cuisine, you’ll no doubt feel energised enough to hike through the area’s beautiful landscapes, taking in the plant and animal life along your way. A guided tour takes around 6 hours, and you’ll have the chance to cool off in a natural pool along the way. This route is also of great interest due to its historical significance; it was the second landing point of discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus.
4. Viñales tobacco farms
Less than 3 hours to the west of Cuba’s capital, you’ll discover the beautiful town of Vinales, best known for its mogotes (limestone hills) and tobacco farms. This is a quiet place where you can take in the charms of the Cuban countryside and enjoy the slow pace of life. There’s plenty to do around here too. Cuevas de Santo Tomas, Cuba’s largest cave system, is certainly worth a visit, as is the botanical garden at Jardin Botanico de Viñales, which boasts various Cuban plants, trees, flowers and fruits.
Mainly, though, people visit Viñales for its tobacco fields. With Cuba renowned for producing some of the best cigars globally, this provides an opportunity to sample the finest cigars directly from the source. Travelling on horseback or on foot, you can head off with a guide into the green landscapes, and visit local farmers who’ll show you exactly how cigars are made from start to finish.
5. Topes de Collantes
Stray off the beaten track with a visit to this UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site north of Trinidad. This national park has an impressive network of hiking trails and a vast array of natural wonders which won’t disappoint. Look out for the national bird here – the Tocororo (also known as the Cuban Trogon) – whose feathers feature the blue, red and white colours of the Cuban flag.
One of the defining features of Topes de Collantes is the quality and quantity of its waterfalls, with some plunging over 60 metres into deep blue pools. Some of the most spectacular falls include Salto Vego Grande, Salto Caburni and the multiple cascades of El Nicho. The Hacienda Codina is a ranch within the park which has several attractions including medicinal mud baths, medicinal and ornamental plant gardens, a bamboo grove, and a cave. Filled with caves, rivers, waterfalls and pools, this beautiful part of the country is well worth dedicating a day of your holiday to.
For even more Cuba travel tips, head to our travel guide below.